Addressing Dehumanizing Language from History

Many of the historical documents in The Reconstruction Era and The Fragility of Democracy curriculum include the word “nigger.” In these documents, we have chosen to let the word remain as it originally appeared, without any substitution. The dehumanizing power of this term and the ease with which some Americans have used it to describe their fellow human beings is central to understanding the themes of identity and human behavior at the heart of the unit.

It is very difficult to use and discuss the term “nigger” in the classroom, but its use throughout history and its presence in this unit’s primary sources make it necessary to acknowledge it and set guidelines for students about whether or not to pronounce it when reading aloud or quoting from the text. Otherwise, this word’s presence might distract students from an open discussion of history and human behavior. We believe that the best way to prepare to encounter this language is to create a classroom contract outlining guidelines for respectful, reflective classroom discussion.

We also recommend the following articles to help you determine how to approach the term in your classroom:

You may also wish to point out the use of the word “Negro” in many of the documents in this unit. In earlier times, this was an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “Negro” is outdated and inappropriate, unless one is reading aloud directly from a historical document.

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Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.